The New-Look Dodgers: 'We Owe Fans a Winner'

9:00 AM PST 08/08/2012 by Daniel Miller
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Wesley Mann

With unprecedented access, exclusive interviews and photos, the new ownership team tells THR about its plan to woo Hollywood with a glitzy makeover and business deals that could make that $2.15 billion purchase price actually pay off.

The McCourts reached a divorce settlement in October, the terms of which included Jamie waiving her rights to the team and receiving $131 million and properties worth about $50 million. A few weeks later, Frank and Major League Baseball announced that they had agreed to a court-supervised sale of the team. "It had to happen -- people were tired of the old ownership," says Jaime Jarrin, the team's Spanish-language broadcaster for the past 54 seasons. "There is new electricity here." (Frank McCourt declined comment; Jamie McCourt's representative did not respond to requests for comment.)

That sale process, run by financial-services firm Blackstone Group, snared a diverse group of prospective buyers, including hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen and L.A. biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong; St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke; Mark Cuban, owner of Landmark Theatres, Magnolia Pictures, AXS TV and the Dallas Mavericks; developer Rick Caruso and former Dodgers manager Joe Torre; and L.A. investor Stanley Gold and the family of the late Roy E. Disney. But Guggenheim trumped them all with its record-setting offer, blowing away the previous baseball record of $845 million the Ricketts family paid for the Chicago Cubs in 2009.

STORY: What Does New Co-Owner Peter Guber Bring to the L.A. Dodgers?

"It sent shockwaves with the value -- some people say they overpaid," says Jeff Marks, managing director of Santa Monica-based sports consultancy Premier Partnerships. "I think at the end of the day, they paid the market [price] because they got the team."

People were surprised, says Johnson, that given his iconic status in the basketball world, he'd want to get involved in baseball. But his answer was simple: "I've always been a baseball fan." And a stake in the team is a feather in the cap for a businessman whose interests range from Aspire, a cable network aimed at African-American families, to a private-equity fund run in partnership with Ron Burkle's Yucaipa Cos. that targets underserved markets. For Johnson, success with the Dodgers could secure his legacy as the leading African-American businessman of his generation.

Guber's involvement flowed naturally. His friend Pat Riley, then the coach of the Lakers, introduced the studio head to Johnson in the early 1990s, and the two hit it off. Johnson's theater company was created through a partnership with Sony's retail entertainment group and predominantly served African-American communities. (Says Guber, "We made a bundle of money.") For Johnson, Guber is "the real magic man," a trusted friend Johnson says he always calls to talk business. "I really love Peter."

Despite the good vibes, several key financial issues remain unclear, including exactly how much each co-owner has invested in the Dodgers. The team was unwilling to discuss the structure of the group in any detail, though Kasten, who previously ran the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, says Walter, as the "controlling owner," has "100 percent of the vote of all of the partners." But Kasten and others declined to reveal what each person contributed and the size of his stake. (During a May 2 news conference, Johnson told reporters his piece is about 3 to 4 percent.)

In addition, Johnson, Kasten and Walter were hammered with questions May 2 about whether McCourt has an economic interest in the team or the property surrounding the stadium. Walter said McCourt's involvement would be limited to potential financial benefit from the possible development of the parking lots. But the questions kept coming. At one point, Johnson admonished reporters, "We are not going to talk about Frank McCourt anymore."

A May 4 Los Angeles Times story said the new owners would pay $14 million a year to lease the parking lots from an entity half-owned by McCourt. "The former ownership isn't involved in any way, shape or form with the current operation [and] management of the Dodgers. Period!" Kasten says now. "Or anything having to do with the fan experience in any way." Johnson, who promised at the news conference that he would be a regular presence at Dodger Stadium, also has been criticized for, well, not being one. His commitment as an ESPN analyst during the NBA playoffs kept him on the road earlier this season, and he took a lengthy European trip. "Sometimes you have the best intentions, and it doesn't work out," Johnson told the Times recently about his absence.

STORY: Dodgers Expected to Emerge From Bankruptcy On April 30

As the Dodgers barrel toward what looks to be a classic pennant race with their longtime rival San Francisco Giants, things appear to be returning to normal at Chavez Ravine. A handful of smaller, immediate changes that the new owners have made, such as lowering the price of parking from $15 to $10, have boosted fans' morale. And attendance is on the rise: The team has drawn the sixth-most fans of any team this season.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda surveyed the team from the dugout, watching batting practice. As players streamed out of the clubhouse toward the diamond, they'd stop when catching sight of Lasorda, who guided the club to two World Series championships in the 1980s. The gregarious 84-year-old paused during an interview with THR several times to exchange pleasantries with the players, offering a "Como esta?" or a "Good to see you" to each that stopped to shake his hand. While the athletes' admiration for the old skipper was clear, his reverence rests in a different place -- with the fans.

"The game doesn't belong to the owners, this game doesn't belong to the players, it belongs to the fans," says Lasorda. "You can have the best stadium, the best team, but if nobody goes through those turnstiles, you are going to have to shut the doors down. That's why we owe the people. We've got the greatest fans in all of baseball, and we owe them a winner."

Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @DanielNMiller

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